If there is one book which should find its way to under South African Christmas trees this year it is the biography of the working relationship between Zelda la Grange and her boss, Nelson Mandela entitled “Good Morning Mr Mandela”.
The very young Afrikaans girl became part of President Mandela’s secretarial team and when he left that office he was allowed to take one secretary with him. He chose Zelda la Grange, the woman who became his gatekeeper and his confidante, a woman on whom he was reliant for much of the rest of his life.
The book is a love story, although not a romance, featuring Nelson Mandela as the hero and the writer, Zelda la Grange as the somewhat unlikely heroine, together with Graca Machel, the wife of our beloved Madiba.
Zeldina, as Madiba called her, documents what an impact this relationship with whom she calls “the world’s most famous man” had on her life from the early days when she attended the 1995 World Cup with her father to see her boss wearing the Springbok captain’s jersey, through serving tea in the Presidential office to former oppressors and comrades alike, and on through the busy years of his retirement and finally, the bitterness of the family strife which left her marginalised and bitter, cut off from contact with the man she served for nineteen years.
It is a riveting read, and one cannot help but empathise when she says: “I gave him my youth, and perhaps my future too.” South Africans know that no one is ever going to match up to Madiba, but for us it is political, national, not personal. For the author it is also personal.
The story humanises Mandela, showing his ability to be charmed by the wealth of people, and to judge them good people if they are good to him (and to his charitable organisations). Mandela was always a man for the ladies, particularly pretty ones, but he was not above allowing his position to introduce him to people of power, position and wealth either. If that is a reprehensible thing, then others must find it so, for I find it endearing.
The public section of the life of the President, the famous past president, is interesting, but it is the personal pain of a woman witnessing the decline of an icon, the break down of relationships, the disintegration of a legend which prove to be the most compelling parts of this tale. She shows how Mandela used her to be the barrier between him and his greedy family, but when he was no longer able to assert himself on her behalf, they ran roughshod over her. In this story I find the powerlessness of La Grange to deal with Madiba’s life towards the end very distressing. If she had been older, wiser, perhaps, she would have been able to manage his end better. As it was she was, incredibly, denied accreditation to attend his burial.
The book is a biography of a relationship, but also the partial autobiography of Zelda la Grange herself. I long to read of her life after the death of her hero, to learn how she applies what she learned from him and while working from him. Just as her life was unable to be complete while Madiba was alive because he dominated it, so the book is incomplete until we learn that she has morphed from Zeldina the secretary into Zelda the independant, powerful woman she was created to be. The book desperately needs that epigraph. I look forward to reading it one day, either in drips and drabs as news of the woman shows up in many ways, or as an actual epigraph.
What a tale has been told. And what potential for more.
The book is published by Penguin and has already been translated into nine languages (and will possibly be translated into Chinese soon). It has been distributed in 11 countries (12 if China gets counted), and is available as an Audio book worldwide.